Helena school officials have revised some of the most controversial aspects of the proposed health enhancement curriculum, responding to the flurry of criticism from parents over the sex education portion.
The majority of the draft curriculum remains intact, but edits to the document removed some of the contentious language while making abstinence-based teachings a more visible priority.
Of the 10 topic areas in the 65-page document, revisions were made to about one-third of the pages in the sections for personal health and preventative care, nutrition, harassment/bullying/refusal and conflict resolution, reproductive system, influence of family, human sexuality and sexually transmitted infections.
“This is a revised draft and not necessarily in its final form,” Superintendent Bruce Messinger said. “We recognize it’s an evolving document.”
Messinger added that while some graphic language was removed, the spirit of the document — medically accurate and age-appropriate education about sex, reproduction and tolerance — remains.
“I hope that folks would see we did listen … and see (the changes) as being responsive,” he said.
After the overflowing turnout at the public hearing for the first draft in June, the district planned for a large crowd. Not everyone who attended previous meetings could fit inside Front Street Learning Center, so the venue was the auditorium at Helena Middle School. Although the facility holds more than 1,000, about 100 people attended the meeting, and public comment was not allowed.
“It’s a significant piece of work,” Messinger said, explaining that it’s not intended to be a textbook, but a technical manual for educators.
Some of the major changes involve the language around abstinence, specific body parts and different forms of sexual intercourse, but many changes were also made in the area of nutrition.
Here are some of the major changes to the document, which is also available online at helenair.com.
On page 16, new language asks kindergarteners through fifth-graders to “identify a trusted adult to notify of hunger in the home.”
Messinger says the intent is to ensure children are getting adequate food and nutrition at home and at school, and for educators to be responsive if they are not. That could mean making sure they are receiving a hot lunch or helping them connect with resources like Helena Food Share if needed, he added.
Other additions to this section include concepts of a balanced meal or snack, the food pyramid, and in third grade to recognize a food label and its key components as well as understand that healthy kids come in all shapes and sizes. However, it’s not until fifth grade that students are taught to understand the negative effects of sweetened beverages in the diet — a lesson that is continued through graduation.
New language in first grade says “recognize that our bodies are made of the foods we eat” and in second grade “understand the importance of breakfast” and “begin to evaluate the role of beverages in the diet, with an emphasis on dairy and water.” New language beginning in fourth grade says students should identify proper portion sizes when choosing foods.
Beginning in middle school the updated document says students should understand the importance of eating at a table away from a television or computer. In eighth grade the document says students should recognize the signs of an eating disorder or unhealthy dieting and understand the basics of healthy weight management.
Messinger said while these topics are important, he was mindful about what is a developmentally appropriate age, recognizing that children gain more independence, not only with food, but in general, as they age.
Other new nutrition language on page 18 for high school says students should understand the important of nutrition throughout the life cycle, with an emphasis on breastfeeding, nutrient-dense food, family meals and a structured meal plan. It adds that students should understand the basics of dietary supplements and when they might be recommended.
Messinger said as young people make their way into early adulthood, the hope is that this information will help them make good decisions about fitness and nutrition.
Board member Trevor Wilkerson suggested adding a section saying people can grow their own food.
Harassment and bullying
The edited document includes the addition of the district’s harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention policy, and therefore the line “define bullying, cyber bullying, harassment and violence” is removed from page 27. A new addition is “understand how a child experiencing unwanted or uncomfortable touching should tell a trusted adult” is on the same page in fifth grade. Messinger retained the line in fourth grade on page 28 that read, “understand sexual harassment is unwanted and uninvited sexual attention such as teasing, touching or taunting, sexting and is against the law.”
Wilkerson asked why fourth grade was selected for this information.
“This is when they potentially would begin to experience that, and it’s continued through the 12th grade,” Messinger responded.
On page 29, in seventh grade the language “know that when sexual assault involves penetration of the vagina, mouth, or anus and is called rape” is replaced with “understand that Montana law defines rape as sexual intercourse without consent.”
Messinger says there was community concern about singular focus on sexual orientation as it relates to bullying.
“I wanted to make it crystal clear that it’s about all bullying,” he said. “Our point was to cover all bullying and our policy, 4.22, does that.”
Board Chair Michael O’Neil said the policy is a great addition to the document because bullying remains a serious problem in the community.
Vice Chairwoman Aidan Myhre said she would like to see some addition that talks about respecting people’s viewpoints and tolerance as an important part of the environment.
Messinger said that would be a good transition into this section.
In the original draft, the reproductive system portion used to introduce reproductive body parts by name — penis, vagina, breast, nipples, testicles, and scrotum — as early as kindergarten and was continued throughout elementary school. Messinger said he struck the specific language that drew a great deal of public comment.
The new language says “as situations arise, education that includes accurate information, correct terminology and reassurance supports normal growth and development in the early school age years.” This is a statement from “School Nursing: A Comprehensive Text” by Janice Selekman.
Messinger said the original language generated confusion.
“It was never our intent to give direct instruction on the parts of the body, but on individual needs we will use medically accurate terms,” he said.
Messinger said the goal is to avoid using slang words that educators spend years attempting to unwind.
Wilkerson asked why Selekman is cited as a text source, when curriculum documents don’t propose texts, and it’s the only place where such reference is used. He said he has a huge concern with leaving it in the draft because it’s a several-hundred-page-college-level text.
“It’s seems like it’s opening the door to using anything from the text,” Wilkerson said.
Messinger said it wasn’t put in there to endorse any other parts of the document and said the text could be referenced in another part or presented it in another place.
Trustee and local attorney Cherche Prezeau recommended taking out the quote and maybe revising the language so it’s not plagiarized.
Influence of family, peers and society
Recognizing that family structures differ was in the original document in kindergarten and second grade, but in the edited version it is in kindergarten through fifth grades.
“We want students to understand there are different family structures and that’s OK,” Messinger said.
A new addition on page 43 reads “each state has laws that define marriage. In Montana, marriage is between a man and a woman. Other states allow marriages between adults of the same gender.”
Messinger said it was removed mostly because it created confusion about intent.
“This was trying to explain the different kinds of relationships (siblings and friends for example),” Messinger said. “We aren’t backing away from being accepting of different relationships.”
Language was removed from page 49 in the first grade about understanding that human beings can love people of the same gender, because Messinger said the bullying policy covers this.
New language about abstinence starting in fifth grade and continuing through graduation reads, “Understand abstinence from sexual activity is a healthy choice and is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and STI/HIV.”
This is introduced the same year as students currently have maturation day, where the boys and girls are split into separate groups to learn about reproduction, menstruation and puberty.
The references of understanding that sexual intercourse includes, but is not limited to, vaginal, oral or anal penetration is deleted from the revised document. However, Messinger said the intent is still to incorporate that into the content when such topics are discussed, but those specific instructional materials, such as textbooks or lesson plans, are not included in this document.
“It was never our intent to teach those sex acts or show videos,” Messinger said.
There is no companion document to explain rationales, which the administration previously talked about including.
“If people have to go pick up another piece of paper to find something, it’s not going to happen,” Messinger said.
Prezeau said she appreciated the community input and said she’d love to see the community stay involved with the coming issues such as graduation rates.
Trustee Robin LeNeve said she hopes the revisions will bring healing.
“These revisions should make everyone have a more positive feeling to go forward with our school district,” LeNeve said.
Planned Parenthood of Montana, in a prepared statement, said it applauds the responsiveness and adaptability of the school board.
“The new draft clarifies the intent and age-appropriateness of the health education standards, particularly around sexual and reproductive health,” said Jill Baker, Planned Parenthood director of education. “As a teacher’s guide, the draft provides developmentally appropriate health information and will require our teachers to be trained and knowledgeable about these challenging issues.”
Helena resident Ryan Morton was supportive of the first proposed document, but agrees with the changes made because they responded to community concern.
“(The changes) were improvements, but the meat of it stayed in,” he said. “I’m really impressed with everything in it, especially the nutrition. I wished I had grown up with it. Whoever gets this is getting so much more than I did, and parents should be happy.”
Niki Zupanic, ACLU public policy director, said the revisions keep intact the heart of the document.
Local mom Marianne Hansen Rencher said she was left with more questions after the presentation, including how parents will know when the curriculum gets updated.
Parent and local business owner Brian Ackerman said he was glad to see the entire school board in attendance for the meeting. He spoke of the importance of their role as trustees.
“You are hearing voices of concerned, engaged parents. … It’s important to remember you represent the people,” Ackerman said. “I’d like to see that happen.”
After the meeting, mom-to-be Theresa Frei said she doesn’t appreciate Messinger repeating that there was misinformation in the community.
“The error was on the side of the writer, not the reader,” Frei said. “If we all read it the same way and got the same impression, you wrote it wrong.”
A public hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 28, at 4 p.m., also at the Helena Middle School auditorium. The board is expected to take a final vote at the Oct. 12 meeting at Capital High School at 6 p.m.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or email@example.com